Where Do Singers Screw Up The National Anthem?

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Earlier this month, before the first game of the Canadian Hockey League's Memorial Cup, singer Alexis Normand joined a long list of people who have brutalized the U.S. national anthem in front of a large, tense crowd.

Normand, who's Canadian, tripped up on "through the perilous fight." She's not the first. Is this a particularly tricky part of the anthem? Where do singers generally go off the rails?


To throw some science at this, we watched a bunch of YouTube videos (n=26) to find the exact lyric where unfortunate singers first fucked up the song. (You can find those videos in the annotations to the top image.) While the actual tune of "The Star-Spangled Banner" is famously difficult to carry–it covers an octave and a half–we focused on true flubs, so the terrible but lyrically accurate renditions of Carl Lewis, Kat Deluna, Roseanne Barr, and others got a pass.

As it turns out, pretty much anything in the first half of the anthem is fuckupable, although only one poor guy (in the very worst rendition we could find) screwed up the first line. If you made it to "And the rockets' red glare" you were in great shape, and if you got as far as "That our flag was still there" you were in the clear (with another horrible exception, shown above). The danger zone seems to be a pair of lines in the middle: O'er the ramparts we watched / Were so gallantly streaming?


These lines are tough for a few reasons. First, as everyone learns in Intro Psych, it's harder to remember stuff that's in the middle of a sequence than it is to remember stuff at the beginning or end. Second, the structure of this whole section is poetically jumbled (easier to understand: "Whose broad stripes and bright stars / were so gallantly streaming / through the perilous fight / o'er the ramparts we watched?") Finally, Google Ngram tells us that o'er, rampart, and gallant themselves have kind of fallen out of favor since this poem was written in 1814, more so than any other words in the anthem. Words that Americans haven't used much in the last two centuries can be tricky to remember.


These factors combined, you have yourself a perfect storm for blowing a culturally-significant song in front of thousands of spectators. If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, you'd better hope Maurice Cheeks has your back.

Thanks to Joe MacLeod for the idea.